By Edward Carney
This week, the families of dual nationals detained in the Islamic Republic of Iran came together in an effort to speak with “one voice” while urging greater efforts by their own governments to secure the release of the falsely accused and arbitrarily detained.
Public statements by the group have highlighted the cases of six such individuals, but the Iranian regime is known to be holding upwards of 20 prisoners who are either citizens or permanent residents in the nations of Europe and North America. Many if not all of these persons have been credibly described as “hostages” who are being held as bargaining chips for negotiations with foreign governments. And in light of recent developments, it is clear that the number of these detainees is still growing.
On Wednesday, Fox News reported upon the open letter published by the hostages’ families and addressed to “world leaders, rights organizations and media outlets.” As well as emphasizing the newfound unity of their advocacy efforts, the signatories also declared that they “shall remain quiet no longer” in the face of what appears to be inaction by Western governments that have a responsibility to confront a “pattern” of hostage-taking and prisoner abuse.
“Responsible stakeholders on all sides of this issue know what to do,” the letter said. “Please, secure our loved ones’ freedom from Iranian prisons.”
Of the dual nationals who were known to be held in the Islamic Republic at the time of the letter’s publication, 13 of them were professional scholars or academics, according to ABC News. That report explained that yet another such individual recently joined this number when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps detained an Iranian demography researcher who holds a position at Melbourne University and is accordingly an Australian citizen.
ABC noted that Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi is facing the familiar charge of “collaboration” with the West, as well as the comparatively unusual charge of “social espionage.” Since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers in 2015, many of the dual nationals who were detained in the country were accused of being part of an “infiltration network” seeking the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic. But details about this network have not been forthcoming, and actions as insubstantial as discussing Iranian current events have been cited as evidence for membership.
In the case of Dr. Hosseini-Chavoshi, the arrest appears to stem from her criticism of a government plan to reverse former population controls. In recent years, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has promoted policies encouraging women to forgo education and careers in favor of starting families at an early age and bolstering Iran’s birth rates. But as Maysam Behravesh, another population expert of Iranian extraction, explained: “Population increase at a time when we have a huge environmental crisis inside Iran, when the economy is not stable, when the country is under sanctions — there are so many problems.”
The ABC report also quoted Behravesh as saying that academic work on this topic is “not very politically sensitive.” But Hosseini-Chavoshi’s arrest seems to point to Iranian authorities being exceptionally sensitive about any form of criticism.
This sensitivity has certainly been blamed for the mass arrests of environmentalists early in 2018, which was also carried out by the IRGC. The hardline paramilitary accused several environmental researchers of spying on the nation’s missile sites, but some of their defenders have concluded that the arrests were, at least in part, a vendetta against critics of the IRGC’s ongoing for the environmental impact of current and forthcoming missile installations.
Additionally, the crackdown on environmentalists came shortly after the outbreak of nationwide protests that gave rise to stark anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator.” These protests naturally generated their own crackdowns, resulting in thousands of arrests in the month of January alone, as well as more than 60 deaths. About a dozen of those deaths occurred as result of torture while activists were in police custody.
Similarly, one environmental researcher who happened to also be an Iranian-Canadian dual national was found dead in his jail cell following the mass arrest. Authorities attributed that death to suicide, but this narrative has been widely disputed.
On Tuesday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran named this individual, Seyed Kavous-Emami, among several other academics and scientists with foreign ties who have been detained in Iran since 2016. This reference to “foreign ties” is significant because it underscores the fact that dual nationals comprise only one aspect of the Islamic Republic’s effort to root out foreign “infiltration” and minimize contacts between Iranian and Western society.
It is difficult to say how many native Iranians have been targeted in this crackdown on the basis of their professional or personal relationships with persons living in the US or Europe. Furthermore, countless arrests in recent years, such as the law enforcement sweep of online social networks known as Operation Spider, have plainly sought to crack down on persons who were merely seen as promoting “Western lifestyles.”
According to CHRI, another demography researcher by the name of Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi was arrested alongside Dr. Hosseini-Chavoshi. No clear explanation was offered by authorities to explain this arrest either, leaving open the conclusion that it was based either on his past work in collaboration with Hosseini-Chavoshi or else his previous academic posting in Australia, even though he remains a citizen of the Islamic Republic only.
In light of this and other such arrests, it might be said that the pattern of behavior highlighted this week by dual nationals’ families is actually significantly more far-reaching than their targeted advocacy suggests.